Can Europe Make It?

Putin’s 'useless idiots' or signs of a deeper pathology? Russophilia and national populism in Greece

A number of ministers in the new Greek government have already been criticised by European commentators for their supposedly pro-Russian views. What explains this unique strain of Russophilia among the Greek radical left?

Vassilis Petsinis
29 January 2015

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has been noted for his Russophilic views. Demotix/Angeliki Panagiotou. All rights reserved.

During the Ukrainian crisis, some political analysts introduced the term ‘Putin’s useful idiots’. This term has been reserved for representatives of the broader or far left in Europe. Certain columnists accused leftist parties and initiatives (e.g. Germany’s Die Linke and the Stop-The-War coalition in Britain) of being carried away by their Euroscepticism and either condoning or siding, by default, with Kremlin’s foreign policy. These political analysts used the same term when the new, SYRIZA-led, government in Greece voiced its preliminary discontent over new sanctions against Russia.

The participation of individuals with connections to the Eurasian movement in the new Cabinet of Ministers (e.g. the Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias) has encouraged these commentators to search for ‘Putin’s useful idiots’ in Greece’s new government. It remains to be seen in the near future whether these allegations are valid or exaggerated.

Of greater interest it would be to focus on political culture and portray latent Russophilia as a component of national populism in Greece. This will enable the reader to comprehend more adequately the manipulation of Russophile sentiments among the public by political actors in Greece and its further-reaching implications.

Defining national populism in Greece: A brief overview

Populism, as a political practice, in Greece was concretized by Andreas Papandreou in the 1980s. As part of his rhetoric, the former Greek PM had combined elements as diverse as the legacy of prominent centrist politicians (i.e. Eleftherios Venizelos and Georgios Papandreou) and the Communist-led Partisan movement (EAM) during the Second World War. In all of this, the commitment to the linear continuity of Hellenism and the cultural values of Orthodoxy were strongly emphasized. Throughout the 1980s, Andreas Papandreou verbally castigated NATO and the EEC as agents of imperialism and praised the friendship between Greece and Ortega’s Nicaragua or Ceausescu’s Romania. Meanwhile, both the Communist Party (KKE) and the Eurocommunists (KKE Esoterikou) had dismissed PASOK’s populism as a project with the aim to deceive the Greek proletariat and alienate it from its class consciousness.

Nevertheless, the weakening of proletarian internationalism as a mobilization means, since 1989, brought about considerable realignments. As early as 1990, several articles in Rizospastis (i.e. the KKE’s newspaper) called for the moderate promotion of national values as a vehicle to maintain collective solidarity in the light of the threat posed by global capitalism. Therefore, individuals with a nationalist profile (e.g. Liana Kanelli) and former affiliates of the Neo-Orthodox movement (e.g. Kostas Zouraris) were admitted to the Communist Party. Meanwhile, the new PASOK leader, Costas Simitis, endorsed a ‘third way’ approach and weakened the impact of populism in the party’s public discourse. Consequently, the more populist segment either became marginalized into back-benchers, or sought refuge in the short-lived Democratic Social Movement-DIKKI (i.e. the evolution of a splinter-group from PASOK) and, some of them, in KKE.

During the 1990s and 2000s, certain realignments also occurred in the conservative New Democracy. As result of the discontent with the stance maintained by NATO and the US in crucial questions of geopolitical concern (e.g. the Macedonian issue and Cyprus) several party-members started adopting an anti-American rhetoric (e.g. the current LAOS leader Georgios Karatzaferis and the present leader of the Independent Greeks, Panos Kammenos).

Nevertheless, throughout the Cold War era, the conservative right had continuously expressed its allegiance to Atlantic interests. Similarly, the Communists, as well as the reformist left, had embraced an internationalist agenda and strictly abstained from nationalist speech. In the light of these circumstances, a process of osmosis was put under way: The left incorporated selected elements of traditional nationalism from the right whereas the latter adopted certain aspects of the left’s anti-imperialist/anti-American jargon. Since the 1990s, Greek national populism, as a mass phenomenon, has been evolving along the following premises: (a) a brand of underdog nationalism; (b) anti-intellectualism; (c) anti-Western sentiments (often more cultural than political); (d) a subtle disposition towards authoritarianism.

Russophilia, national populism and the Greek left

Vladimir Putin’s espousal of a ‘Eurasian’ foreign policy doctrine brought about a new wave of Russophilia in Greece (2000s). Various segments across Greece’s political spectrum saw a guarantee that Western arbitrariness in Global Politics would be regulated if Russia emerged as a more potent global actor. Meanwhile, during Kostas Karamanlis’ term in office as PM, the Greek government sped up bilateral cooperation with Russia in energy issues. Of particular importance is the impact of Russophilia among the Greek left and set in context the degree to which it has adopted hybrid aspects of the Greek national populism’s discourse.

Prior to the more decisive emergence of Russophilia, the Yugoslav wars of secession (1990s) had been a crucial test for the Greek left. Croatia’s sponsorship by Germany, in combination with Franjo Tuđman’s flamboyant rhetoric and the Ustaše heritage, had led many Greek leftists to dismiss the Croatian republic as a replica of the wartime NDH. Meanwhile, a notable segment of the Greek left rushed to picture the Bosnian Serb leadership and military as the continuation of the Yugoslav partisans and the wartime AVNOJ.

Despite the long tradition of anti-Communism in the Karadžić family, the KKE-leader, Aleka Papariga, had no inhibitions to cordially receive Radovan Karadžić during his official visit in Athens (1993). Although never admitted straightforwardly, Germany’s involvement on the side of Croatia and Turkey’s on the side of the Bosnian Muslims had made KKE and other Greek leftists overlook essential realities in the former Yugoslavia.

The latest developments in Ukraine seemed like a repetition. Portals such as Iskra, and publications with an ‘avant-garde’, leftist, profile (e.g. Unfollow) were quick on their feet to portray Euromaidan as a coup orchestrated by the US, the EU, and the Ukrainian far right.

Soon after that, the unrest in Eastern Ukraine was interpreted as a war between neo-Fascists (i.e. the new Ukrainian government) and anti-Fascists (i.e. the Donbass separatists). Particular attention was paid to Senator McCain’s reckless meetings with the Pravi Sektor. However, no reference was made to the participation of green and anarchist activists in Euromaidan or to the active involvement of the Russian far right in Donbass (e.g. the cases of Aleksandr Barkashov and Pavel Gubarev).

The same publications and informative websites even propagated certain conspiracy theories, fabricated in Russia, in order to ‘bypass’ the violent suppression of the protests by Yanukovych’s security forces. In short, the frequent references to ‘Ukrainian/Banderite fascists’ and to the ‘EU/US-engineered coup’ almost echoed the coverage of these developments in and other pro-Jobbik websites in Hungary.

‘Useful’ or ‘useless idiots’?

Back in 2013, Aleksandr Dugin had stated that ‘in Greece, our partners could eventually be leftists from SYRIZA, which refuses Atlanticism, liberalism and the domination of the forces of global finance’. Literally, this vague statement referred to synistoses (‘premises’) such as the ‘Leftist Platform’ led by Panayiotis Lafazanis.

This is one of SYRIZA’s segments with a considerably harder Euroscepticism than the party-average. Nevertheless, the formation of a coalition government with the, right-wing, Independent Greeks has opened up new prospects. Some commentators have pondered that the disagreements in crucial areas of decision-making (e.g. military expenditures, minority issues and Balkan foreign policy) may lead to a split in the long term. Other analysts reckon that the pact with the Independent Greeks may lead to a ‘right-turn’ on the SYRIZA’s part and the consolidation of a government with more explicit features of national populism.

In case the latter speculation turns out to be more accurate, how useful could Greek national populism be as an ally to Russia’s foreign policy? At this given moment, the answer is: not a particularly useful one. In order to illustrate this assessment, a ‘bottom-up’ approach to the political culture and social psychology of Greek national populism would be needed.

Russophilia, as a mass and political phenomenon, can also be observed in other Southeast European societies. Neighbouring Bulgaria and Serbia provide two appropriate examples. However, there exist qualitative differences with the Greek case.

Bulgarian, and to a lesser extent Serbian, Russophiles possess a remarkably more extensive knowledge and experience of Russian politics, society, and culture. Moreover, a good percentage of them speak the Russian language and/or have spent some time in Russia. When it comes to public Russophilia in Greece, the actual knowledge of Russia is rather limited or elementary. Russia is primarily seen as an actor that can regulate Western influence in a multipolar world order, often coupled with feeble justifications on the basis of Orthodoxy, the Soviet heritage, or a combination of both. In short, Russia’s image among the Greek public remains that of a remote, yet not inimical, Eurasian ‘Other’.

In addition, underdog nationalism makes up a key-component of national populism in Greece. It tends to perceive the country’s trajectory through history and Greek national interests (or rights) as being under constant threat by external (often Western) antagonists and plots. However simplistic it may appear, Greek national populism has frequently employed the formula ‘my enemy’s (perceived) enemy is a friend’. Apart from Russia, numerous other ‘allies’ have been invoked during the last decades such as ‘the Serbian Orthodox brothers’ in the 1990s, the ‘victimized Arab world’ in the 2000s and, most recently, the ‘crisis-hit, fellow South Europeans’.

So far, national populism has provided a mobilization means for several political actors in Greece ranging from Andreas Papandreou all the way to Kostas Karamanlis and Alexis Tsipras. Nevertheless, its superficiality, inconsistencies, malleability and idiosyncratic behavior do not render Greek national populism a reliable partner for any external agent. Russophilia, as a component of Greek national populism, remains too ahistorical and slightly ‘Messianic’ to be taken seriously from a longer-term political perspective.

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